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Apple may co-design special new ARM chips for its laptop and desktop computers

Bob Mansfield, Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL"Technologies" group senior vice president, recently announced that his semiconductor teams have "ambitious plans for the future."

I. Change Ahead?

For Apple, who has been quietly been growing its chipmaking army with acquisitions like P.A. Semi and Intrinsity, that could mean a switch from Intel Corp.'s (INTC) x86 chips on the Mac computer front to in-house system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs utilizing ARM Holdings plc.'s (LON:ARM) proprietary architecture, which is currently found in Apple's iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

new report from Bloomberg suggests Apple is exploring a possible exit from its dependence on Intel chips, over the next several years.  The news agency writes:

While Apple is now committed to Intel in computers and is unlikely to switch in the next few years, some engineers say a shift to its own designs is inevitable as the features of mobile devices and PCs become more similar, two people said.
As handheld devices increasingly function like PCs, the engineers working on this project within Apple envision machines that use a common chip design. If Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook wants to offer the consumer of 2017 and beyond a seamless experience on laptops, phones, tablets and televisions, it will be easier to build if all the devices have a consistent underlying chip architecture, according to one of the people.

ARM core
Apple is rumored to be contemplating switching its Macs to ARM chips.
[Image Source: Maximum PC]

None of the companies involved were willing to comment on the rumor.  However, this has not been the first time that Apple has been rumored to be working on computer-side CPUs in-house.

ARM shares climbed 4.2 percent on the London Stock Exchange following this news, and news that ARM had paid MIPS Technologies, Inc. (MIPS) a lump sum of $350M USD to license its portfolio of 580 hardware patents.  The MIPS deal lays to rest concerns that the rival reduced-instruction set computer (RISC) architecture designer might be preparing to sue its more prolific peer (ARM).

II. Lesson From the PowerPC Era

Apple may be reticent to jump into a computer-side deployment of ARM too soon.  

Only a decade ago Apple was supporting another non-x86 architecture -- PowerPC -- whose chips were co-designed by Motorola and International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM).  While PowerPC Macs seemed to be faster in some benchmarks than their higher-clocked Windows/x86 counterparts, Intel's flashy clock speeds during the height of the Megahertz wars hurt Apple from an image standpoint.  And Motorola's decision to bail on PowerPC drove Apple to in 2005 finalize its long-standing plans to jump ship to Intel's x86 chips.

ARM is hardly analogous to PowerPC at present, but it's easy to see why Apple might be uneager to move too fast, should market conditions change.  Indeed, the next few years in the chip market are a time of great uncertainty.  

PowerPC G3
Apple's decision to ditch PowerPC brought it closer in line with Windows OEMs, who also use Intel chips. [Image Source: Bryon Realey/Flickr]

On the one hand, Intel is pushing hard to leverage its process advantages to deliver fast, power-efficient mobile cores, cutting into ARM's core business.  On the other hand, ARM is invading the personal computer market with Windows RT, and is expected to land in the server market around 2014 with Window Server 2012 R2.  ARM has been boosted by x86 veteran Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.'s (AMD) decision to at least partially transition its CPU line to ARM chips.

If Bloomberg's sources are accurate, Apple will likely be hard at work designing a possible ARM-based SoC replacement to drop into its MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros.  But the decision to pull the trigger may ultimately rest on where ARM stands versus Intel/x86 come 2016-2017.

Source: Bloomberg

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If it happens
By Shadowself on 11/6/2012 2:56:52 PM , Rating: 2
IF it happens, it won't happen before 2020 at the earliest.

The MacPro line won't move over to ARM before then for sure. Apple is just as likely to kill the MacPro line as to move it to ARM.

The iMac line is possible by 2020, but very unlikely before then. Apple is still shipping i5 and i7 chips in the iMac and likely will be shipping the equivalents through 2020. The processing power in even the newly announced (and details in rumors) for the 64 bit ARM designs won't catch up to where Haswell will be until at least 2020.

No matter what there will be a step back in performance in going from the then i7 or Xeon equivalent of whenever the switch is made and the then current ARM system. ARM is a reasonable compromise between performance and power draw. The i7 and Xeon chips weight the equation very heavily in favor of performance and NOT in favor of low power draw.

Also note that the focus of Haswell and Broadwell are on the lower power end (not as low as ARM, but certainly lower than Intel has focused on before) AND that the Intel has yet to even informally announce the dates for the Xeon versions of Ivy Bridge.

Intel knows that going forward their profits are going to come from lower power chips. In the next five years Intel is going to sell many, many more "mobile" chips (think i3 and i5 equivalents) than workstation ships (think i7 and Xeon). Intel is going to follow the money.

Some people have gone so far as to say that Apple's chip design teams are larger than the teams at DEC or SUN when they started their own workstation CPU design efforts -- as if that is justification enough for Apple to design its own desktop related chips. And what happened to Alpha and SPARC?

I don't expect Apple to make its third chip switch (1. 68k to PPC, 2. PPC to x86 and 3. x86 to Ax) for the Mac before 2020. I'd be truly shocked if it happens before 2017.

The last fly in the ointment is the Mac's Windows compatibility. While some may claim it is just coincidence that Mac sales have increased since Apple started directly supporting people Windows on the Mac. Apple must know that Windows support is critical to the Mac. I doubt Apple will ever get Microsoft to tweak Windows for an Apple specific implementation of the ARM designs.

RE: If it happens
By DanNeely on 11/6/2012 3:12:15 PM , Rating: 2
Some people have gone so far as to say that Apple's chip design teams are larger than the teams at DEC or SUN when they started their own workstation CPU design efforts -- as if that is justification enough for Apple to design its own desktop related chips. And what happened to Alpha and SPARC?

I'd certainly hope they are. A modern SOC dwarfs an 80s/90s era RISC chip in complexity.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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